When I told my close relatives that I was going to visit the city of Chisinau (Russian: Kishinyeu) the capital of Moldova, they gave me a strange look! They were used to my globe trotting movements mostly to the Western hemisphere. None of them knew anything about Moldova, let alone its location! Then I was trying to explain the reason for my visit, flying onboard an old soviet propeller airplane.
Early 2010 a second opportunity to fly onboard the Moldova Ilyushin IL-18D (ER-ICB), belonging to Tandem Aero/Grixona presented itself and I decided to signed up for this mini-tour. Having not flown any Russian turboprop airliner before I felt this would be my last and only opportunity. The IL-18 is fast becoming a rare airliner to photograph, let alone fly in one. ER-ICB, one of the last remaining passenger configured IL-18, and flies in-frequently from her base at Chisinau airport.
Back in April 2009, the German Air Events group managed to organize a passenger IL-18 flight within Moldova. This year two aviation enthusiast from Germany and Switzerland Daniel Frohriep-Ichihara and Michael Reich decided to organize one more dedicated flying tour with the ER-ICB, which would include a flight to the Ukraine, Kiev Zhuliany airport to visit the huge Aerospace Museum. Steve Kinder, a well known UK tour guide, was asked by Daniel to join as tour guide and "Master of Disaster - MOD" in preparing this tour.
Several weeks prior to lift-off, our itinerary was changed and now included a second stop at the former Moldavian Airforce base Marculesti, which is in the North of Moldova, at no extra cost.
There are no direct flights from Amsterdam Schiphol airport to Chisinau. Having checked several airlines and routes, I decided to fly via Vienna with Austrian and Tyrolean Air, flying the Dutch Fokker 100/70 twin jet. Together with two other Dutch photographers we left Schiphol a day before the start of the mini tour. We arrived under glorious weather conditions and our Fokker 70 was parked at Chisinau old terminal which was converted to a VIP reception. One of our passengers turned out to be a VIP businessman and he was rushed away in a fancy Mercedes, while the rest of the passengers boarded the airport bus for the short ride to the terminal. Our transit through immigration was surprisingly swift and within minutes I found myself inside the small, modern terminal trying to exchange some Euros for Moldavian currency.
This proved to be somewhat of a problem as most money exchange offices where already closed! Once outside we enjoyed the nice autumn weather and walked over to the Tupolev Tu-134A monument for some pictures. Afterwards we took a local minibus to the Cosmos hotel, which was located at Negruzzi Avenue, downtown Chisinau. The 30 minute ride was very bumpy and we safely arrived at our 1950's style hotel. Although the hotel has a 3-star status, it's very Spartan in all aspects. The reception and lobby area where dimly lit and contained heavy carpentry from the soviet days. My room featured a simple wooden table and chairs. My bathroom was not in a very good shape, I won't go in any details. On the positive side it was clean and the bed was fine.
The following morning I woke up and joined my fellow Dutch photographers in the breakfast room. Its here I met up with the tour organizers, Daniel, Michael and Steve. I inquired about our flight and local weather conditions. All was fine and the IL-18 was in great condition, I was told.
With plenty of time to spare, I decided to make a city walking tour and capture the mood of Chisinau. Not far from the hotel is the city main railway station called: Gara Feroviara, and featured a very nice terminal building. From there I walked towards the city's centre and the Hotel Chisinau, which is located on the same square as the Academy of Science building. Around the corner on Ciuflea Street is one of Chisinau nicest buildings, the Cathedral of St Tiron the Martyr(1856). I continued my walk along the main street: Stefan Cel Mare Si Sfint. The public transportation system includes a network of busses, Taxi Vans and vintage trolley busses that have seen better days.
The centre of the Chisinau harbours its very own Arch of Triumph and behind it the beautiful Cathedral Birth of Christ Bell tower. I noticed several wedding couples in and around the square taking pictures. I found Chisinau a pleasant place to be in with modern restaurants, cafes and places to shop and not forgetting the fine-looking girls walking around.
That evening at 18.00 hours LT we joined the group briefing at the Cosmos hotel for a meet & greet session. Approximately 34 aviation photographers from 11 countries, from the UK, Holland, Austria, Malta, Germany, Swiss, Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, UAE, Italy and Australia were assembled for the latest update. After the short briefing by tour leader Steve it was off to a local restaurant for some Moldavian cuisine and Chisinau beer.
The following morning it was an early rise followed by a relaxed breakfast, trying to swallow the stale bread with some hot coffee. We assembled in front of the hotel waiting for our mini-bus transport to the airport. After a couple of minutes our Moldavian host Alexander Marcenco arrived and we were ready to go. The morning traffic was slow so we had a swift ride to the airport terminal. Once inside I noticed that our IL-18 flight was already displayed on the electronic board, shown as; Tandem Aero TDM 1410 destination Kiev. Once the group had assembled, we were able to check in and go through passport and security control.
The Chisinau departure lounge is relatively small but very modern, nothing here which would remind you of the old soviet era. Having time to spare we decided to get some last minute refreshments and coffee. The ER-ICB was already parked on the remote stand next to a Moldova Embraer 190 jetliner. Steve came around and notified us that we had to put on our high-visibility jackets in preparation of boarding. It was only a short ride across the ramp and then I was able to meet our old Soviet lady! It was still 30 minutes before departure and plenty of time for all photographers to inspect the Ilyushin IL-18 classy lines and take pictures. Near the aft stair I met up with our crew; Captain Vladimir Rusu, Captain Vladimir Matenko, F/E Sergey Sapojkov and navigator Oleg Drebujan. Taking care of the cabin was the lovely flight attendant Raisa Ostapenko. The rest of the crew consisted off Valerii Iurcu, Alexander Gordeev and Valentina Eriomova. Completing my walk around inspection I boarded the IL-18 and looked for my travel companion to sit next to. There were plenty of window seats available for all photographers. The ER-ICB featured a full passenger cabin interior, which included open hat-racks, aft-lounge area, a mid section pantry/stowage and toilet area. In the forward area there was a business class section. I found my aviation companion sitting in this section forward of engine number 3 & 4.
Once all the crew and passengers were inside, Captain Vladimir and his cockpit crew initiated their pre take-off checks and engine start procedures. A short announcement was made by our lovely flight attendant reminding us to read the emergency card and fasten our seat belts. Moments later engine number 2 started spinning. As I watched through my dirty window I heard the heavy drone of the Ivtschenko A1-20M turbine engine slowly filling up the cabin. It was a sound I have not heard for many years. With all 4 running smoothly Captain Vladimir pushed his power levers forward and with a short burst of power we moved away from our parking position and swung around. We taxied past the modern terminal and old tower and stopped halfway the intersection. I felt the airframe shuddering as each Ivtschenko engine and the prop feather mechanism was tested. When we moved again I guess all was well and we back tracked the active runway for a runway 26 departure.
With maximum power applied we raced down the runway and lifted off smoothly. After take-off we made a right-hand turn and climbed slowly towards our cruising altitude of 21.000 ft. We passed over the outskirts of Chisinau and tracked north for our flight to Kiev Zhuliany downtown airport. I got out my seat and moved towards the cockpit. Several fellow photographers were standing near the cockpit entrance snapping away, so I decided to explore the cabin and enjoy the flight from a different vantage point.
Onboard our IL-18 there is construction number plate, showing the a/c type, operator, s/n and registration. ER-ICB was built by the Moscow Machinery Plant #30 aka 'Znamya Truda'and was delivered in January 1968, with construction number 188010603 as a military troopship/transport with tail number CCCP-74296, flying for Aeroflot. During the early 1990's her registration was changed to RA-74296. As such she flew with AIS AL, Gosnii GA and later on with Tretyakovo Air Transport Co. still wearing the old Aeroflot cheat line. During March and April 1996 she made a couple of cargo flights to Schiphol East airport (Holland). Still with Tretyakovo titles she was seen at Sharjah United Arab Emirates (UAE), during the spring of 2000. Three years later during August 2003 she was sold to Pecotox Air of Moldova and became ER-ICB. As such she was seen during March 2006 at Istanbul airport, during a cargo flight, with her passenger interior fully stripped. Her Pecotox adventure ended late February 2005 and she was sold to Grixona several weeks later, still in basic Aeroflot colours but now with full Grixona titles.
Grixona was a cargo airline based in Chisinau, Moldova. It operated international charter services to destinations in the Republic of Congo, India, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Somalia and the United Arab Emirates. Its fleet contained mostly Russian turboprop types as the AN-12B and IL-18D. The airline started operations on 29 April 2005 and had 125 employees. In June 2007, it was announced that the Republic of Moldova had withdrawn the Grixona, Aircraft Operators Certificates (AOC) as it was not subject to an appropriate safety oversight, and the European Commission's Air Safety Commission has in consequence banned the airline (and others in Moldova) from flying within the European Union. This flight was operated under the Tandem Aero (TDM) callsign. TDM has been operating passenger charters, using leased a/c from 1997. They have been using Antonov 24RV and Air Moldova Embraer 120 aircraft.
I noticed we started our descent to Zhulyany (Kyiv) and the view outside was starting to get hazy. Pretty soon we were in the clouds. As we started our approached to Zhulyany I noticed we were flying over Kiev city limits passing over the Dnieper River. On final approach I noticed the typical Soviet style urban flats build-up. The airport is just 8 km's from downtown Kiev and is considered as a GA aviation and Business airport. Zhulyany airport features a very interesting Antonov Aircraft Repair Plant 410-CA and maintenance facility. A wide range of a/c repairs, conversion, overhaul on Antonov-24, -26, -32,-72, and Yak 40 are done here. The main reason for our stop was to visit the enormous Ukraine State Aviation Museum located on the East side of the airport. We made a smooth landing and taxied past a row of stored AN-24/26s and Yak 40's. We stopped in front of the old Soviet style General Aviation terminal and awaited our air stair and transportation to the antiquated terminal.
I soon found myself going through immigration and customs and waiting for the rest of the group to emerge, proudly looking at my new Ukrainian stamp in my passport. At last the whole group made it through and we boarded a scruffy mini bus to the museum…only 3 miles away. The State Aviation Museum has some impressive Soviet civil and military aircraft on display, including an An-2, Tu-104, Il-62, Il-76, Il-86, Beriev BE-12PL and very rare Beriev Be-6. You can spend a whole day at this museum, but sadly we had only two hours, before our departure.
Once back in the Zhulyany general aviation terminal it was time to board our beloved IL-18 again and head for our next destination in Moldova. Boarding was surprisingly smooth and within a couple of minutes the familiar sound of the Ivtchenko AI-20M engines filled the cabin once more. We waived good-bye to our Ukrainian friends and pulled away from the ramp for a runway 25 departures. We got airborne at 14.06 hours LT and climbed to a lower altitude of 16.000 ft. It took us about 50 minutes, cruising at 450 km/h, to reach Marculesti International airport (LUBM). The weather was not improving and our final approach was under dull and grey condition. The landing was smooth and I noticed that the runway did not have any taxiway & threshold Lights? As we started to taxied to our parking ramp it started raining lightly.
Marculesti used to be a Moldavian Airforce base...but has been since converted to civil status...! Capt Vladimir parked the IL-18 on a remote stand and we waited for an air-stair to arrive. Once the aft door opened, we where aloud to disembark, only to be greeted by the friendly faces of military and immigration personnel, who kindly requested our passports. I could not identify any modern airport infrastructure. The airport looked more like an old worn out military base, off course the weather wasn't helping. After our splendid photo-ramp tour which included some Antonov 26s & An-2's', Mil Mi-8 helicopters and non operational Mig-29's we were greeted by the airport commander with a big reception. There was plenty of food and drinks (cognac) to celebrate the arrival of the IL-18 and its group of crazy trigger happy photographers. It was running a bit late, so Steve summoned the group to head back to the aircraft, as Marculesti closes at 18.00 hours LT. Back onboard we received our passports.
At 17.30 we departed Marculesti for our last sector back to Chisinau. It was only a 30 minute flight and as we approached the airport Captain Vladimir Rusu and his crew ended our historic flight with a really low pass down the full length of runway 08 for the benefit of its thrilled passengers. Thus ended our mini-tour onboard the old Soviet lady we made a smooth 180 degrees turn and landed back on runway 26. An unforgettable weekend was coming to an end.
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With thanks to Andre van Loon
See also Chisinau City Tour